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Lessons on the Law, Media--and Money

Now that the O.J. Simpson trial is moving from dry procedure toward emotional days of testimony and evidence, I’ve been thinking what the past months have taught us.

The change from the slow pace of judicial routine to the excitement of a whodunit was apparent in court Thursday. Lawyers for both sides skirmished over the prosecution’s plans to explore the extent of violence in Simpson’s relationship with his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, who was stabbed to death last June along with her friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman.

Next Wednesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito will hold a hearing on whether Simpson’s violent behavior toward Nicole Simpson can be used against him in the trial. Exploring the relationship of this troubled couple gets to the heart of the prosecution’s case. Prosecutors could use evidence of violence as a motive as they try to persuade the jury that Simpson was the killer.

This is news with an edge, much easier for journalists to report and for readers to understand than the procedural matters and jury selection that occupied the courtroom since fall.

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Yet looking through the thousands of words and images of those months, there was much to have been learned about the law and the press, lessons that may shape these powerful institutions in the future.

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I talked about this Thursday afternoon with Everette E. Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, which is based at Columbia University.

In November, Dennis wrote a critique of Simpson trial coverage in the center’s bulletin, Communique, that caught the essence of the media’s difficulties in covering the early stages of the proceedings.

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“While there has been some good and responsible reporting, bad taste abounds with tabloid television shows and newscasts hyping ever racier--and highly speculative--details, most of which suggest falsely that the scenario changes with every news cycle.

“What’s more, these reports are produced against the backdrop of the courthouse, a place known more for slow, predictable procedure than for fast-breaking events.”

Dennis told me that much of the coverage missed the mark because of the media’s efforts to cover these procedural steps, such as obscure legal motions and lengthy questioning of prospective jurors. Usually, such matters are ignored by reporters covering a criminal trial. But in the Simpson trial, they became big news.

“There was an impression (given) that there was this lively, dynamic process going on, as if there were winners and losers,” Dennis said. “They played it like a horse race, like there were winners and losers, like there was benefit to one side or another every day. . . . The press misleads the public by saying each little thing is important.”

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Wasn’t there anything we learned from this blow-by-blow examination of minutia, I asked him? We did learn something, he said. We were forced to think about the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, banning unreasonable searches and seizures. The defense cited this amendment in objecting to the police search of Simpson’s mansion. If he is convicted, this issue will probably be a basis for an appeal.

Most important, he said, “we are learning that money talks, that a case can be extended almost indefinitely if the money is there.”

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Most of the details that were so fiercely litigated in the past few months are ignored when a poor person, or one of average means, is tried for murder.

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The defense attorney, often an overworked public defender, doesn’t have the time or money to throw up barriers to the introduction of key evidence or to engage in detailed probing of potential jurors.

On Thursday, for example, defense attorney Gerald F. Uelmen, a retired law school dean, took up the fight against introduction of the potentially damaging domestic violence effort. The prosecution replied with its own domestic violence specialist, Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Gordon.

At the same session, prosecution and defense specialists on DNA fought over the use of that evidence in the trial.

Think what would have happened if the defendant had been another kind of football player, one who didn’t star at USC and the NFL, but one who took his high school athletic letter into the obscurity of the average person’s life--a trade, perhaps, or unemployment, rather than living in a Brentwood mansion.

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Watching all this, I could see how money gives power to the defense. A strong defense forces the prosecution to prepare its case with incredible care. Every procedural issue is a potential battleground. As a result, the defendant is treated with super consideration.

I’ve learned that dry procedures also serve as protection against injustice. Everyone--rich, poor and middle class--should be able to take advantage of them, just as Simpson is doing. But in a criminal justice system where money talks, that’s seldom the case.


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